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SEX ABUSE

Pope defrocks two Chilean bishops for sex abuse of minors

Pope Francis has defrocked two Chilean bishops for the alleged sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican said in a statement on Saturday after a meeting between the pontiff and the president of Chile.

Pope defrocks two Chilean bishops for sex abuse of minors
Pope Francis speaks as he meets with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (L) and his wife Cecilia Morel during a private audience at the Vatican on October 13, 2018. Photo: Alessandro Bianchi/ POOL/AFP

The decision to expel former archbishop Francisco Jose Cox Huneeus and former bishop Marco Antonio Ordenes Fernandez — the latest heads to roll in a country hit hard by the cleric abuse scandal — could not be appealed, it said.

Both were stripped of their priesthood “as a consequence of overt acts of abuse against minors”.

The announcement came a day after the pope accepted the resignation of Washington DC archbishop Donald Wuerl, who has been blamed for not doing enough to deal with paedophile priests.

Saturday's defrocking was “an extremely unusual, if not unprecedented” move, said Ines San Martin, a Vatican expert writing in the Crux specialist Catholic website.

Defrocking is considered the harshest penalty for priests within the Church and means the offender is forbidden from exercising any clerical duties at all, even in private.

Scores of new cases of priestly sexual abuse of minors have come to light in Chile, deepening a crisis in the Roman Catholic church that has also embroiled Pope Francis.

On Saturday, Francis met with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera at the Vatican for talks on the “difficult situation” in Chile.

They discussed “the painful scourge of abuse of minors, reiterating the effort of all in collaboration to combat and prevent the perpetration of such crimes and their concealment”, the Vatican said.

The leaders “shared the hope that the church could live a true rebirth,” Pinera said in a statement. 

A total of 167 bishops, priests and lay members of the church are now under investigation for sexual crimes committed in the South American country since 1960.

Investigation ongoing

Fernandez became a bishop at the age of 42 in 2006, but resigned just six years later, allegedly for health reasons.

It later transpired that he had been accused of sexual abuse, sparking both a church and a civil investigation.

“The civil investigation is still ongoing because he's never responded to a court subpoena to give testimony,” Vatican expert San Martin said.

Fernandez was last seen in public in 2013 and had reportedly been living a life of penitence and prayer in Peru, she said.

Cox has long been the object of abuse allegations dating back to the 1970s.The Vatican on Saturday said he would remain a part of the institute of the Schoenstatt Fathers in Germany.

The prelate, now 85 and reportedly in precarious health, has resided in the institute since 2002, San Martin said.

Pope Francis has already apologised repeatedly to Chileans over the scandal, admitting the church failed “to listen and react” to the allegations, but vowed to “restore justice”.

In May, the Argentine pontiff accepted the resignation of five Chilean bishops amid accusations of abuse and related coverups.

Francis himself became mired in the scandal when, during a trip to Chile in January, he defended 61-year-old bishop Juan Barros, who was accused of covering up abuse by paedophile priest Fernando Karadima in the 1980s and 1990s.

Karadima was suspended for life by the Vatican over the allegations of child molestation.

Francis eventually accepted he was wrong to defend Barros and subsequently accepted his resignation.

READ ALSO: Tackling child abuse must be Church's priority: Vatican panel

AUSTRALIA

Vatican bank reformer called to abuse inquiry

Vatican finance chief George Pell was on Monday called to give evidence at an inquiry into sex abuse as one of Pope Francis' commissioners for the protection of children accused him of being "almost sociopathic".

Vatican bank reformer called to abuse inquiry
Cardinal George Pell was appointed last year to make the Vatican's finances more transparent. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Formerly the top Catholic cleric in Australia, Cardinal Pell has become embroiled in the probe in his homeland which last week heard evidence from paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, who abused at least 50 boys over two decades.

Pell, who accompanied Ridsdale to court in 1993 when he admitted widespread abuse, has repeatedly denied knowing about any of the offences, helping move the priest to another parish or that he tried to bribe a victim to keep him quiet.

That victim was his nephew, David Ridsdale, who alleged he confided in family friend Pell about the assaults and that he was asked by him what it would cost to buy his silence.

Other victims had demanded Pell, who was appointed by Pope Francis in February 2014 to make the Vatican's finances more transparent, return to give evidence to The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The cardinal said last week he was willing to do so and on Monday the commission officially requested he appear in person when the inquiry next meets in the Victorian town of Ballarat, at a date to be determined.

“The chair has received a letter from Cardinal Pell indicating that he is prepared to come to Australia to give evidence,” the commission said in a statement.

“The royal commission will ask him to give evidence in the second of the Ballarat hearings.”

Peter Saunders, who was hand-picked by the Pope six months ago to be one of the church's commissioners for the protection of children, said Pell not only had a moral obligation to return but should be removed from his Vatican role.

He alleged in an interview with Australia's Channel Nine that Pell hadacted with “callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic I would go as far as to say, this lack of care”, in his approach towards abuse victims.

“Given the position of George Pell as a cardinal of the church and a position of huge authority within the Vatican, I think he is a massive, massive thorn in the side of Pope Francis's papacy if he's allowed to remain,” added Saunders, a British survivor of child sexual abuse.

“And I think it's critical that he is moved aside, that he is sent back to Australia, and that the Pope takes the strongest action against him.”

'Imperative Pell returns'

A statement issued by Pell's office said the allegations were “false and misleading”.

“From his earliest actions as an archbishop, Cardinal Pell has taken a strong stand against child sexual abuse and put in place processes to enable complaints to be brought forward and independently investigated,” it said.

“Cardinal Pell has never met Mr Saunders, who seems to have formed his strong opinions without ever having spoken to His Eminence.”

The statement added that “in the circumstances, the cardinal is left no alternative but to consult with his legal advisers”.

Francis Sullivan, head of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which is coordinating the Catholic Church's response to the inquiry, said Pell should return so “we get to see everything laid out in full”.

“Until we can get to that point, then all of the commentary around this will continue to swirl without us landing on what really happened.”

The royal commission was called after a decade of pressure to investigate wide-ranging allegations of paedophilia in Australia.

It has heard harrowing allegations of child abuse involving places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools. Pell previously gave evidence, in person, in March 2014.